For the past fourteen months, Jon Anik has been a fixture on MMA fan’s monitors. As the anchor for MMA Live, ESPN’s weekly 30-minute digital news and information show, Anik has been supplying keyboard ninjas and casual fight fans with the latest happenings in the world of Mixed Martial Arts. The broadcaster was also the English speaking play-by-play announcer for Bellator Fighting Championships’ first 12-week season.
During a recent event in California, Anik set some time aside to chop it up with FightMagazine.com about MMA Live, Bellator and what it was like to stand on a stool next to Brock Lesnar.
Fight! Magazine: How long have you been following MMA?
Jon Anik: I started following the sport in 2005. The first event I ever covered as a journalist, I took my boxing radio show to the EliteXC debut in South Haven, Mississippi, which was in February 2007, and even though the card wasn’t great, you had a very disappointing main event between Renzo Gracie and Frank Shamrock. But it was then when I really got the bug for Mixed Martial Arts. I have been covering Boxing for a long time, and I always say that I feel like Boxing is just far more susceptible to having a dud than MMA is. I just think more often than not when you compare MMA to Boxing, to other combat sports and other pro sports, very rarely does it not deliver. I think it’s tremendously compelling and I just think in terms of the product delivering is second to none in pro sports.
FM: So how did you become the anchor for MMA Live?
JA: Essentially I had hosted a boxing radio show out of Boston for four years, so they (ESPN) knew I had covered combat sports. I think I was probably the frontrunner at that point at time, and basically they just wanted to see if I could make the transition to MMA and see if I could hang with the Mixed Martial Arts stuff. So I guess it wasn’t necessarily that I was auditioning against a whole bunch of other people. But I got the first shot and thankfully, they liked me enough.
FM: Take me through what goes down during the week for MMA Live.
JA: Well we have a pre-production meeting on Monday, and Tuesday is really my prep day. I do type the entire show after I receive a rundown, which is basically an outline of where we’re going. So a lot of it is just talking to people, some of my sources, scanning the various websites that are great continuants for information, and just outlining the show and reaching out to guests, and sorta coordinating everything and certainly, there are some last minute changes. We do our taping on Wednesday morning. I’m in there at 5:30 in the morning because in MMA, like any other sport, things change very quickly and news happens overnight and through the night, so it’s literally right up until we get into the studio. We’re tweaking things, especially in the 411 segment and making sure everything is up to par and newsworthy and timely, and all that stuff. Tuesday is a tough day for me. It’s a 12-hour, 15-hour day, and once we get to Wednesday, it feels like all the heavy lifting is over and we just got to tape the show.
FM: What’s your favorite part of the show?
JA: I’d say just being able to interact and connect with such a diverse group of fighters. Being able to get to know so many of these high profile guys intimately really gives me unprecedented insight into what they’re going through as they’re training for fights, after fights, before fights. That access – and I’ve worked my whole life as a journalist – but the access I have when we’re filming MMA Live is really like no access I’ve ever had as a journalist. You know Kenny Florian, when we were at UFC 94 and Georges St-Pierre beat BJ Penn, Kenny and GSP started talking off camera about training together for their next fights, and that relationship was sorta fused right before my eyes. So I’d say the access is really the best part for me.
FM: What type of impact do you feel MMA Live has made on the sport overall thus far?
JA: Well I hope we’ve been part of the growth. I think 2008 was a huge year for Mixed Martial Arts. I think EliteXC being on CBS was a huge story and obviously with Kimbo Slice, even though that didn’t pan out, I think that to get Mixed Martial Arts for the first time in prime time on a major network like that was a huge step for the sport and I think MMA Live has been important for the sport. I truly believe we led to thousands of people becoming Mixed Martial Arts fans because if you’re sort of a casual combat sports fan and you go to ESPN.com and you see this show, I do think it’s consistently well done and I think it presents all the information that you might get on the MMA web sites in a concise fashion, not to mention that you hear from UFC fighters every week. I just hope we can continue on that momentum and it’s really, our success is inexorably right to the fans. It’s the fans that are tuning in every week and watching the show. I mean ESPN’s Digital Media department devotes a lot of resources into MMA Live and if the numbers from the fans didn’t support it and if the sponsorships from Burger King and others didn’t support it, I don’t know if we’d still be around. So I think that support from the industry has really been nice for us and we appreciate the feedback and hope it continues.
FM: Who are some of your favorite MMA Fighters?
JA: Well anybody who follows my chats on ESPN [knows] Joey Villasenor is probably my favorite fighter. The first MMA fight that I ever covered was the EliteXC debut in Mississippi and EliteXC was really shoving David Loiseau down our throats and Villasenor just mopped the canvas with him and destroyed him. So I followed Joey pretty closely since then. I know he’s been inactive, but I think he is a very under rated middleweight. He’s a world class Mixed Martial Artist, he’s still under rated, and I think he gets overshadowed by a lot of guys in his camp. And another guy an unknown guy Mamed Khalidov from Poland. I saw him on an EliteXC show against I believe Jason Guida and even though Guida maybe isn’t the greatest barometer, I was impressed with Khalidov and I’m hoping he finds some exposure and success stateside. And other than those two guys, I would say in terms of the UFC guys, I’m a big fan of Dustin Hazelett fan because I just love jiu-jitsu and I just think Brazilian jiu-jitsu is the most important MMA skill, so I’m a big Hazelett fan as well.
FM: Nice. So do you train in any discipline?
JA: I took boxing lessons for about a year in Boston back in 2006, and my schedule has just been so crazy balancing ESPN and Bellator. But I hope at the end of the Bellator season, to start taking some Brazilian jiu-jitsu perhaps at the Florian Martial Arts Center or maybe finding a Renzo Gracie school in Connecticut or somewhere local. But I think it’s important for me to do it because I think it will help me as a broadcaster to have trained, especially in jiu-jitsu. You know I took boxing lessons, I covered high school wrestling, so hopefully at some point I’ll get my ass in the gym.
FM: Speaking of Bellator, how did you initially get with Bellator Fighting Championships?
JA: Well I think they got my name from a producer at Friday Night Fights, and I’d say two or three weeks before season one was to begin, they decided in addition to the Spanish broadcasts on ESPN Deportes that they were gonna be doing an English broadcast as well. So I got a call from the CEO Bjorn Rebney and essentially, it was just a question of whether I can work my ESPN schedule around the Bellator schedule, which you know is very aggressive with 12 shows in 12 weeks. My bosses at ESPN were very receptive. They thought it would be good for MMA Live and my career, so thankfully they allowed me to sort of move some things around. I hadn’t called fights before. I did some play-by-play for other sport, but I never called fights before and without question, it’s been the greatest thrill of my broadcast in my career calling fights cageside, there’s nothing like it.
FM: Obviously everything is going great with Bellator and there have been some memorable instances. What’s it feel like to be calling some of the craziest knockouts and submissions of the year?
JA: It’s certainly been exhilarating and I think it’s been nice for me to sort of have some big moments early on to see just how ready I am to call some major moments. I think anyone at Bellator would tell you we had some good fortune. Sometimes it is better to be lucky than to be good, but I do think the tournament sets itself up in a way that fighters are willing to take risks because of how much money has been on the line. But it’s so unbelievable. Who would’ve thought you’d get an inverted triangle choke and a week later, Yahir Reyes is getting nothing done through seven minutes and literally, his corner tells him to look for the spinning back fist. And two minutes later, Estevan Payan goes face first to the canvas. I just didn’t know how big those two moments were, but I just hope myself and Jason Chambers did them some justice because it was certainly a thrill sitting cageside for it.
FM: During your whole MMA broadcasting career, what has been your most memorable moment thus far?
JA: I’d have to say MMA Live at UFC 91. It was unprecedented for ESPN, the worldwide leader in sports, to send a crew out to a major Mixed Martial Arts event. That never happened before and to anchor that coverage is something I’ll never forget or the rest of my life. Randy Couture just screams legend the minute you meet him and it was really great getting to know him. And Brock Lesnar is a guy who is sorta isolated for most of the year. He’s just a gentleman and I think the thing I’ll take away from that is they had me standing on, I think, a two or three foot wooden stool when I interviewed Brock Lesnar. It just wouldn’t work. I looked like an ant standing next to him. I would definitely say getting to know Randy and Brock, and what I think was a historic first for ESPN to be on the road at a major ESPN event.
FM: Was it intimidating interviewing Brock? Because that dude is big!
JA: He’s a monster. I actually think what was interesting for me as the first UFC Heavyweight that I had any real interaction with was Frank Mir and his size was amazing to me. The way Frank Mir fills up a doorway. You know we think Bobby Lashley is such a huge guy, but it’s amazing how much more the doorway was filled up when Frank Mir would be standing in it instead of Bobby Lashely. But I think with Brock it’s a little bit more intimidating at first because he just gives off that vibe. But when you get to know him, I mean, what a gentleman. I don’t know what the exact perception is with Brock Lesnar, but I came off very impressed with him as an individual.
Read Bear’s chat with MMA Live contributor Molly Qerim here.